Fluid personality

Indigenous rights and the Te Awa Tupua Act 2017 in Aotearoa New Zealand

In March 2017, the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017 (NZ) (‘Te Awa Tupua Act’) became the first piece of legislation in the world to declare a river a legal person. Through this grant of legal personality the Whanganui River acquires the rights, duties, powers and liabilities of an entity with legal standing including the ability to sue those who harm it. This legislation is aimed at reconciling the relationship between the government of Aotearoa New Zealand and its Indigenous peoples (Māori) in light of the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, one of the founding documents of Aotearoa New Zealand.

However, the Te Awa Tupua Act also offers a platform to explore the promotion and protection of Indigenous rights in international human rights law including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples in relation to Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand. This inquiry demonstrates that despite the novelty of the legislation and the exciting progress towards re-establishing Māori governance and management over the River that they held for centuries before European colonisation, the innovative grant of legal personality to a river does not fully address past wrongs in that it continues to exclude Māori ownership of freshwater. Ultimately the Te Awa Tupua Act leaves Aotearoa New Zealand wanting in its commitments under international human rights law.

Source: Collins, T., & Esterling S. 2019. Fluid personality: Indigenous rights and the Te Awa Tupua Act 2017 in Aotearoa New Zealand. ResearchGate. 

Image credits

Icon image: Synchronicity Earth - Recognising the rights of rivers